The Five Obstructions
De Fem Benspænd
review by Carrie Gorringe, 19 September 2003

Toronto International Film Festival 2003

As if the machinations in Dogville were insufficiently stimulating for Lars von Trier, he indulges himself in some more game-playing with his friend, fellow director Jørgen Leth, in a little scenario called The Five Obstructions. Leth is to make five "obstructions", or short films, based upon an obscure 1967 film, The Perfect Human. Each of Leth’s films will be created according to a set of rules laid down by von Trier. Constant among the rules, however, are the requirements that Leth use no sets, (a good Dogme 95 precondition) and that no single edit can be longer than twelve frames. Between 2001 and 2003, von Trier sends Leth globe-hopping from Cuba to Austin, Texas, to Bombay’s red-light district, among other places, to create his mini-masterpieces.

After his first successful effort, Leth boasts, "Twelve frames are a paper tiger!" Obviously disconcerted despite his outward nonchalance, von Trier replies, "Next time we’ll have to add a few more [rules]." And Leth’s personal obstructions grow. His ethics and talents are tested to the limit (in one of the films, he is obligated to dine upon a sumptuous buffet in front of poor people), but he comes through mostly unscathed; he is able to win over von Trier even when working in von Trier’s least favorite medium: animation. Von Trier is amazed by the effortlessness of Leth’s work -- "Not a mark has been left on you by the films you’ve made" -- so von Trier decides to direct the final episode himself, giving Leth full credit for the production, but allowing him only the role of narrator. Leth’s narration, written by von Trier, talks about a filmmaker who "tries to fool the world because he doesn’t want to be a part of it…emotions are too dangerous." Then comes the revelation: von Trier exposes himself as "dishonest", because he only sees what he wants to see. It is a case of the attacker, which von Trier has been throughout the film, exposing himself as the ultimate obstruction.

The Five Obstructions is a fascinating exercise in watching art emerge from not only technical constraints, but also from morality and friendship, especially the latter two elements. Although von Trier puts his friend through the wringer (promising, at one point, to "ruin" him), he also has few illusions about himself. But what do morality and friendship mean to von Trier? His films possess shades of morality running from jet black to grey in the best of circumstances, as one would expect of an individual whose viewpoint of the world is somewhat jaundiced. It’s also the self-righteousness of the ideologue (and von Trier, with his espousing of extreme naturalism in his adherence to the rules of Dogme 95, is an ideologue), who knows that he has a better answer than anyone else. But, in using disadvantaged individuals in the name of a so-called "sophistic exercise", is von Trier (with Leth as his handmaiden in crime, so to speak), undercutting his own superior morality, or is a self-lampooning his real intention? And what about his relationship with Leth? At what point does testing someone’s limits go too far? These are the real questions raised by the film, and, difficult though they are to answer with absolute certainty, there is no doubt that they, and not necessarily the films themselves, constitute the real "art" on display.

Toronto International Film Festival Coverage:


Directed by:
Jørgen Leth
Lars von Trier

Written by:
Lars von Trier
Jørgen Leth

R - Restricted.
Under 17 requires
parent or adult






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